Netanyahu two-faced on two states? Maybe not

Don’t be fooled: the PM’s reported willingness to discuss borders only seems like a breakthrough; in fact, he still sees a two-state outcome as desirable, but currently impossible

Raphael Ahren is the diplomatic correspondent at The Times of Israel.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and European Union foreign policy chief Federica Mogherini speak to the media on May 20, 2015. (AFP/POOL/DAN BALILTY)
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and European Union foreign policy chief Federica Mogherini speak to the media on May 20, 2015. (AFP/POOL/DAN BALILTY)

In the US, they call it a flipflop. In Israel it’s a zigzag and in France a volte-face, but no matter what name you give it, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has apparently become a master of changing his mind, at least on the issue of Palestinian statehood.

Or so it sometimes seems. But look a little deeper and the prime minister’s stance has remained constant — a view of a two-state solution as an ideal, though one that can’t be realized now.

One could be forgiven for failing to get a good read on where the prime minister actually stands on the issue. In the past months alone, he seemingly reversed his pre-election position right after the vote, made various statements about construction in East Jerusalem and seeking alliances with moderate Arab states, and appointed hawkish politicians such as Tzipi Hotovely and Silvan Shalom to crucial posts — all of which provide more questions than answers.

Adding to the general befuddlement was a report Tuesday that Netanyahu showed willingness, for the first time ever, to discuss the contours of borders between Israel and a future Palestinian state by determining which settlement blocs would remain under Israeli rule in a future peace deal.

“It’s clear there are areas that will remain under Israeli control under any agreement, just as it’s clear there are areas that will remain under Palestinian control under any agreement,” the prime minister reportedly said during a meeting with European Union foreign policy czar Federica Mogherini.

On the one hand, Netanyahu said (during his joint press conference with Mogherini last week) that he supports the principle of two states for two peoples and desires the speedy resumption of peace talks. On the other hand, he said (in the closed meeting with Mogherini that followed) that the Palestinians are running away from peace, taking unilateral hostile actions against Israel and posing preconditions that make an agreement impossible.

It is no wonder that the Europeans left the meeting skeptical, heartened by Netanyahu’s declared commitment to Palestinian statehood but still unsure about the sincerity of his words.

But the truth is that Netanyahu’s position is not all that difficult to figure out. In principle, he knows that a one-state solution would lead to a bi-national state, which would spell the end of the Zionist dream. This realization, joined with ever-increasing international pressure, led him to endorse the two-state solution.

He first expressed the willingness to accept a demilitarized Palestinian state that recognized Israel as the Jewish homeland in a historic 2009 Bar-Ilan University speech. And several statements geared to a right-wing electorate ahead of the recent elections notwithstanding, Netanyahu has never really reneged on his commitment to the principle of two states for two peoples.

At the same time, however, he is convinced that the current geopolitical realities would turn a future Palestine into a hotbed for terrorists that would jeopardize Israel’s survival. Furthermore, he interprets the Palestinians’ refusal to recognize Israel as a Jewish state as an indication that the current Palestinian leadership is not ready to drop all claims against Israel once and for all and coexist peacefully.

Lastly, his political base is such that it can swallow a rhetorical commitment to the two-state solution, but he fears it would rebel if he were to make concrete moves to divide the Land of Israel.

It’s the clash between what Netanyahu considers a dreamy ideal and the harsh reality that dooms his position on Palestinian statehood to a debilitating deadlock.

Hence, his reported willingness to delineate areas Israel would keep under a future agreement Tuesday should not be seen as an indication of a new flexibility. Rather, it is probably little more than a maneuver to placate the international community and to secure international legitimacy for the settlements blocs, so he can continue building there without being hammered by the world every time a new tender is issued.

Those seeing a true “possibility of a breakthrough,” as Israeli and European officials told Haaretz about Netanyahu’s closed meeting with Mogherini, are likely to be sorely disappointed. All Netanyahu said to the EU chief was that he remains generally committed to the peace process and a two-state solution, and wishes for peace talks to resume. He did not present any maps or indicate how much of the West Bank he is willing to give to the Palestinians, nor did he so much as mention concrete proposals or policy initiatives.

For the Europeans, as for the US administration, the question is no longer whether the Israeli government embraces or rejects the two-state solution. A Palestinian state based roughly on the 1967 lines is the only game in town for them, and they wonder now what exactly Netanyahu means when he speaks of two states for two peoples. If he envisions a State of Palestine on an area comprising only 60-odd percent of the West Bank, without East Jerusalem and the Jordan Valley, his vague commitment to a two-state solution will not satisfy them for very long.

Netanyahu thinks he can get away with this because he is banking on Palestinian recalcitrance. If I stretch out my hand with an offer to discuss the borders of the settlement blocs and the Palestinians turn it down, he might like to think, the international community will have no other choice but to refocus its pressure on Ramallah.

The first part of this scenario has already come true. It only took a few hours after the report emerged until the Palestinian Authority unequivocally nipped Netanyahu’s ostensible proposal in the bud.

“Nothing relating to final status issues can be segmented or postponed,” spokesperson Nabil Abu Rudeineh said. “The basis for any negotiations must be recognition of the 1967 borders, Jerusalem as the capital of an independent Palestinian state… along with a complete halt to settlement [construction] and the release of the fourth group of [security] prisoners jailed before Oslo.”

This more or less describes the international community’s vision of a solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict as well, and therefore it may be doubted whether Netanyahu’s strategy will succeed.

If the EU, and more significantly US President Barack Obama, arrive at the conclusion that Netanyahu’s heart is not where they’d like it to be on the Palestinian question, he will soon discover that a verbal commitment to a two-state solution will not get him off the hook.

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